Note: This article originally ran February 8, 2020.
In 2017, I participated in San Francisco’s Night Ministry. It is an outreach program with a fifty year history in which priests and pastors from various denominations walk the streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin. They do not go out to preach, but rather walk slowly and wait for people to approach and make conversation. It is often described as a “listening ministry.” One may speak to the homeless, someone leaving a bar or any random person, but whoever wants to speak, it is the service of the priest to hear, validate and offer counsel only if asked.
It was while thus engaged that I came across a young homeless man, reading a bible. It prompted conversation and he shared with great enthusiasm some of his insights from the text and his passion for the same. He was articulate and intelligent, and from what he shared, I felt the goodness of his heart. He described some mental health problems and difficulties with drug addiction, which resulted in him living on the street. It was in these conditions that he had been robbed, beaten and even sexually assaulted.
He had recently acquired a new tent, which he had only had for one day before it was stolen. He had a positive attitude, despite his circumstances. He was very happy to be able to share his faith with me and his testimony that he knew God lived and would provide, even if he missed a meal or two now and then.
He also told me that he had seen an angel once, and said it was okay if I did not believe him. It was during the time that he was beaten and sexually assaulted. While being thus attacked, he had a vision and saw an angel before him, and the angel comforted him as this attack went on, speaking to him of God’s love for him.
It occurred to me that many people would dismiss the story as either a fabrication, or as a delusion in the mind of a drug addict with a mental disorder, undergoing a traumatic event. But it also occurred to me that God loves all His children and knows what each of them needs in their life path and spiritual journey. God is more than capable of granting a vision to such a person in their hour of need. I have no doubt that this experience gave him great reassurance, which is helping him endure life’s trials to this day.
The angel did not come to call him to be a prophet, did not establish new doctrines and did not give him a mission to influence other people by his experience. He pronounced no condemnation for those who didn’t believe, but merely reassured him of God’s love and that he would get through his ordeal. One might wonder if God sent an angel why the angel did not stop the assault rather than give comfort while allowing it to continue. Such may intervene in multiple people’s free agency. The young man clearly had made some poor choices by getting caught up in drugs, but being on the street and being assaulted by others is a side effect, not a punishment from God. He was enduring hardships that he did not foresee or deserve. Many people in this world are assaulted and abused in various ways, and what we need most is strength and reassurance. We can live in a perfect world and not grow, or we can become perfected through enduring and overcoming an imperfect one. What we need most is faith.
God did not make me the ultimate judge in whether the young man really did see an angel, or whether he truly heard him speak to him of God’s love. That vision was for the young man alone. The young man shared his testimony, and that is a beautiful thing, and something each of us may do no matter who we are or where we come from. God is no respecter of persons. But the Spirit gave me something by way of hearing the story, which spoke more to me than whether the story was objectively and factually true.
It could be that God did not really do anything miraculous in this case, but if so, what impact has the story made on my beliefs about God? I only accepted the story because I already believed that God was a God of Miracles and Visions, which any believer may receive. Accepting such stories only restates clearly what I already believe about God, and I believe these things because of my own experiences. Did I learn something from the experience? Yes. Whether or not the story is true, the teaching and insight I received from the Holy Spirit is! It taught me something about what really matters in each of our personal faiths and how we may react or assimilate other people’s stories.
One of the reasons I strongly oppose authoritarian fundamentalism is because we tend to be dogmatic about everything, not only the scriptures, and it keeps us confused, skeptical and ultimately disempowered. We think that to accept one thing as true, requires a list of things of us that may not be warranted. We do not need to form an opinion or a belief about everything, and we sure do not need to defer it all to an authority figure for them to decide what’s true and what isn’t. Using our discernment does not need to put our entire faith on the line. We do not have to accept all of one’s stories if we accept or believe one, nor do we have to accept the person as an authority, nor their interpretation of what happened. Whatever we receive from it is our responsibility, whether we receive by one spirit or another.
This goes for all scriptures, all teachings, all stories, all prophets. We are responsible, even if we receive a well worded story that is doctrinally sound and attended by great miracles. If something about the teaching becomes incorrect in principle down the line, we will be held accountable for our lack of discernment, just as we are held accountable for rejecting that which is wholesome and good. And we cannot shirk the responsibility by rejecting all supernatural claims because discernment is one of the talents the Lord has entrusted us with, which we cannot bury and return to him unutilized. This is freeing and empowering rather than frightening. If we have a strong connection with God and we trust Him and have correct insights into His character, we do not need to fear being misled by false prophets, and we do not need to compensate for that fear by quenching the Spirit and despising prophecies (1 Thess 5:20).
So why do I say we do not need to form absolute opinion or belief about someone’s vision or revelation, and yet also say we cannot shirk our duty to use the discernment God gives us? Isn’t this a contradiction? This brings us to what discernment is and what it is not. Discernment is a form of revelation, but does not need to be a definitive answer. At times, the Spirit is not saying, “Behold, this revelation is false” but may only be pressing me not to accept it at this time, and if so, that is all I should say. I should not pretend to more than this, even out of fear that my lack of knowledge makes people question my connection with Spirit.
The Spirit of Discernment
All believers may receive discernment, but as a gift from God and not an ability we possess inherently, like all his power and miracles. We cannot use them wantonly or for our own purposes, and this is what we do when we pretend to know all or be able to instantly tell if someone is lying. We only know what the Spirit is willing to tell us and what we are willing to hear. It is not a game, not a means to advance our worthiness or power, and not a means to assert our authority over others, which most of us would do if we could use the gift without fail every time. Many people “play the odds,” replacing skepticism with a spiritual gift and use it to look good in the sight of others. Discernment is not about judging the speaker, but about determining the truth of what he or she said, or how that truth fits into the Gospel understanding the Lord is giving us, and specifically whether the Holy Spirit would that we receive this truth at this time.
There is a lot of justifiable doubt toward those claiming revelation, but discernment only happens if we bring none of our own human desires to the inquiry, and if we have no preconceived notions. If all we see are frauds and charlatans, it is damaging to faith. It helps to be clear on what is OUR faith, because if we discern and assimilate what we come to believe, it becomes ours and not someone else’s. My faith is good for me, and it is MY faith. Even if I believe and have faith in the story of someone else’s manifestation, it is still MY faith. I do not fall prey to charlatans and usurpers because I obey God and not humans. My faith in their story only serves to reinforce my belief and devotion to my God, who I access within myself, therefore a lot of the fear that people have of being misled is unjustified if their faith includes the safeguards against blindly following, i.e. discernment.
This is the danger of the belief that a prophet will never lead you astray. There is no need for discernment, revelation and spiritual gifts if the prophet cannot lead people astray. In this way, the spiritual development that the Book of Mormon was revealed for, to teach people how to go to God and receive for themselves, is invalidated. This is the process by which a spiritual movement that derives from revelation becomes an orthodox institution without revelation, and the spiritual gifts are quashed. In this way, the orthodox fear of false revelation is often worse than the actual false revelation.
I am not quick to call out frauds and charlatans. It is not my pleasure at all to catch someone in a lie or become someone’s accuser. Often I am content to rather say, “This revelation does not speak to me.” That is not a conclusion, but a mere statement and statements leave the door open for change. Who knows but that further revelation to myself will change my stance? And if the person is truly deceived by Satan or their own mind, does that really mean they are evil? Probably not. We have all been deceived by a human before, and it did not make us evil or malicious, and demons are trickier than humans, so deception is understandable. I’ve thought back to my own angelic and revelatory experiences and questioned if I was deceived by a corrupt source and had to use discernment again to determine their source. Keep in mind that the temptations of Satan are ongoing.
But even if I accept the revelation of another, I can only accept what the Spirit teaches me through it. He may teach something other than what the first receiver learned. He speaks to us all in different ways, as we learn line upon line, here a little and there a little, as we each become ready and in His own due time. And we each are tested in various ways. I accept that prophets fall into temptation at times, and if so, I want the benefit of receiving their true revelations without the detriment of joining them in their error. The revelation may be true, but his or her subsequent conduct and interpretation may not be.
I believe in human prophets, even lay prophets that sit beside us in church, and like us, they interpret supernatural experiences with human minds. They make mistakes and they sometimes mistake the importance their experiences should have to others and sometimes get side tracked from obeying God and begin obeying their own minds without even noticing. That does not change the opportunity for my benefit in their experiences.
Imagine if God entrusted someone with a mission to proclaim a revelation, and from that revelation, Satan tempted the person to set up a church and believe they were the new messiah. The revelation was correct, but what they got from the revelation was not. Satan took it and ran with it, and the whole matter became a test of discernment for countless others, some of whom used discernment well and others did not. All of this was foreseeable by God and is a means of separating the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps the church did not do or believe anything different from other churches. Who then is to say that he or she was not inspired to build it? We cannot use discernment over a hypothetical speculation, but the point is that God works in many ways and has many purposes, and we will each encounter opportunities to apply the gifts He has given us to determine His will for us, and it may not look identical for all, so we should judge for ourselves and not in haste.
If God reveals a book through Isaiah and that book benefits me, but I am not ready to receive chapter 20, I am benefited if I receive all but chapter 20, and I am not benefited if I reject the whole book. Perhaps chapter 20 is in error. Perhaps I am in error, but by accepting all but chapter 20, the benefit I receive from the rest eventually grows into my acceptance of the whole book and more besides. If I accept the whole book, and then Isaiah goes on to say that I am to obey him in all things and do other things that God does not direct, I may reject Isaiah’s commands and still accept his book. Thus am I immune from usurpers, though also guaranteed to overlook some of the Lord’s revelations because of my human frailties, which the Lord himself has provided for in his plan to bestow grace upon grace and to forgive us our sins and errors. And I may accept for a time some stories or teachings that are not of God, but they will eventually be replaced as I continue to grow in the Gospel and in my own personal discernment. Thus am I confident, a seeker, immune to usurpers, accepted in my imperfections and working toward perfection. I am showing faith in God’s goodness and that the details will be worked out in time.
As a witness for God and a spiritual leader in some ways, and having been taught and instructed by his Spirit through both discernment and revelation, I would that we establish an environment where we may each boldly testify to any and all experiences that we experience and the visions and revelations and commandments that we receive without fear of being stigmatized, without our motives being attributed to evil, that we may be heard when we proclaim truth and corrected when we are in need of correction in a spirit of love and acceptance. I would that we foster an environment of faith where we compile and assimilate all the revelations that come from the lay members who are being endowed and fostered in their spiritual gifts, in fulfillment of prophecy of the time when the youths will see visions and the elders will dream dreams, and we will all be a prophetic people endowed with God’s Spirit, in power and not fear. Such a people may have the power to redeem and convert the false prophet instead of merely condemning them.